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Issue One REWIRE Magazine

Jess Winch, News Editor at Tortoise

Published 22 Nov 2023

'Behind the Byline' captures the compelling stories and experiences of senior journalists throughout their careers offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the world of journalism. In this series, we explore the challenges, highlights, and insights gained along the way.

This month, we feature a Q&A with Jess Winch, the News Editor at Tortoise and former Foreign Editor at the Telegraph.

What story is gripping you right now?

The state of Afghanistan. This summer marked two years since the Taliban swept into the Afghan capital, Kabul. I was heavily pregnant at the time and managing news coverage for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph as the newspaper’s foreign editor, while also trying to help our correspondents get their fixers out - fixers are the local reporters and translators who are critical to telling the story, sometimes at great risk to themselves. Two years on and women are being totally erased from public life - the term “gender apartheid” seems completely accurate to me. Meanwhile many of those that escaped to the UK are being made homeless. It’s a story we’re covering in our flagship newsletter, the Daily Sensemaker.

What story will dominate 2024?

The US presidential election. At the moment it looks like the 2024 race will be a rematch between Joe Biden and Donald Trump - a pairing that wasn’t particularly inspirational first time round, when both men were four years younger. But Biden is running with no significant Democrat challenger, while Trump is currently the clear Republican frontrunner, despite facing four sets of criminal charges. Tortoise is planning a podcast series in the autumn on the rise and fall of Trump ally Rudy Giuliani, as a first look at some of Trump’s co-conspirators.

The way society consumes news has changed - what shift has had the biggest impact?

I keep thinking back to a short video I watched in journalism school where two reporters in a US newsroom were uploading their first news articles online - with no paywall or anything similar. They said something like: “We’re just going to see what happens.” What happened was people became used to getting news for free, while internet advertising gutted newspapers’ advertising revenue

How will we consume news in a decade's time?

Trust in news providers will be critical - but I expect people will consume news from a variety of sources across broadcast, print, audio and social media. Tortoise is investing in news and investigative podcasts, which resonate with younger audiences, so that seems a good bet. But I love turning the pages of a newspaper on a Saturday morning - I can dive into stories I might not otherwise read online. I think print will survive as a part of the overall mix.

What is the greatest threat to journalism?

I'm worried about the impact of artificial intelligence. Not so much the risk that AI chatbots will replace journalists (at least not yet), as they are not reliable enough to trust with much. Generative AI models do not care about truth or accuracy, they just predict the correct word order. But another risk is that these chatbots could cut off web traffic to news websites. Google, for example, could answer queries directly with a chatbot (possibly without attribution), rather than serving up links. If that happens - still a big if - it would reduce traffic to publishers and in turn harm their remaining advertising and subscription business.

Corporate responsibility and social purpose are becoming more important for business. How does the media decide what is genuine and what is 'reputation washing'?

A healthy sense of scepticism and not taking press releases at face value. For example, thinking about whether an announcement fits with the company’s long-term strategy, or if it seems like more of an image boost pegged to an event such as International Women’s Day.

If you could be a journalist at any point in the last 200 years, when would it be and why?

I would have liked to work in the pre-internet age, perhaps the 1980s, when local news was thriving and newsrooms had the budget to cover dozens of foreign correspondents and large expense accounts. But working in a newsroom today means you can reach more people through so many mediums - and the industry is slowly becoming more diverse.

What was your first story to cover as a journalist?

My first proper story was a piece from Cambodia in 2010 on the UNbacked tribunal for the Khmer Rouge, which was published in The Sunday Times. Thousands of Cambodians were tortured and killed between 1975 and 1979 in Tuol Sleng prison, known as S-21 - and the prison commander, Kaing Guek Eav, or Comrade Duch, was the first senior Khmer Rouge leader to face trial. I interviewed some of the few survivors of the prison ahead of the verdict - it was very special to see it in print. When I first started as a graduate trainee at the Telegraph, I also managed to get a pass to report on the London 2012 Olympics - that was a joyous few weeks.

What is your favourite story to have worked on?

I’m not sure I can call it a favourite, but I certainly learnt a lot managing coverage of the first Trump campaign. I vividly remember going to an editorial conference just after he came down the golden escalator at Trump Tower to announce his candidacy in 2015 thinking, “This is going to be fun.” I don’t think the news media was at all prepared to cover a candidate - and later a US president - like Donald Trump - a man who slips so easily into lies and exaggeration. His speeches were often covered live without any corrections or context. That’s changed now.

What would you say to a 12-year-old considering a career in journalism?

It’s not always an easy industry to work in, but it is a privilege to tell people’s stories and frame the conversations that matter to society. Find stories that you feel are important, because that is the first step in making them matter to a reader, or viewer, or listener. And don’t be afraid to ask a stupid question.

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